ALBUQUERQUE - Forget about whether Harvard was seeded 10th, 11th, 12th, or 133d. That’s not the issue.
In the NCAA Tournament it’s about a lot of things, but foremost among them is the matchup. And in this regard, Harvard was, well, most unfortunate.
Vanderbilt is big. Harvard is not. That could be a problem when the two clash at The Pit on Thursday.
And that’s just the beginning. Vanderbilt comes in on a high, having conquered top-ranked Kentucky last Sunday afternoon in the SEC championship game. Yet neither the Vanderbilt size nor the Vanderbilt momentum happens to be the worst thing confronting the Crimson.
A highly regarded Vandy squad has lost to a 13 (Siena), a 13 (Murray State), and a 12 (Richmond) in the first round in the school’s last three trips to the tournament. It only gets thrown at them four or five hundred times a day back home.
“Our team may have as much motivation in this tournament as any of the 68 selected,’’ says coach Kevin Stallings.
Harvard’s last appearance in the NCAA Tournament pre-dates the Churchill “Iron Curtain’’ speech, the famed Army-Notre Dame scoreless tie, and the second Louis-Conn fight. This first NCAA appearance in 66 years has moved Stallings to lavish praise on Tommy Amaker and his squad, saying, among other things, that what he likes is their chemistry.
“They are very well-coached,’’ Stallings says. “They play extremely well together on both ends of the floor. They have a definite plan on offense. Their team defense is exceptional, as is their willingness to share the ball, to move the ball to get it to the best option on that particular possession.’’
That’s not all.
“I think, like our team, they’ve grown this team up,’’ he continues. “They’re juniors and seniors, for the most part, and they’ve played a lot of basketball together. They’re used to each other. There’s an inherent chemistry on a team like that, and I think they have it.’’
All of that is true, but it won’t matter much if Harvard can’t get its hands on the ball every once in a while. Harvard is many good things, but the Crimson’s front line is positively Lilliputian when compared with Vanderbilt’s, which features 6-foot-11-inch Festus Ezeli, who just got through playing the famed Anthony Davis to a draw; 6-8 Lance Goulbourne; 6-7 Jeffery Taylor; 6-9 Steve Tchiengang; and 6-9 Rod Odom.
These guys aren’t just long. Messrs. Ezeli and Tchiengang are each in possession of proverbial “NBA bodies.’’ It’s going to be a formidable task for the Harvard bigs, who aren’t all that big.
“This is going to be challenging,’’ acknowledges Harvard’s Keith Wright, the Crimson’s only certifiable inside threat, at 6-7 and change. “It’s going to take a team effort from every position, but I think we’ve put in the work this season in order to deal with talent like Vanderbilt’s, and I think we’ll be fine.’’
Wright is a low-post power player without significant lift. He struggled against UConn’s duo of Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi (3 for 10, five rebounds), although he did have some success with Saint Joseph’s leaper C.J. Aiken.
“Yeah, I think this team’s front court is a good front court,’’ agrees Kyle Casey, Harvard’s 6-7 forward. “They’re big, strong, and athletic. But I think we’re prepared. We’ve played teams this season who have had a good front court. I think if we just stick to our principles, we’ll be fine.’’
Casey could very well be the game’s X factor. He is a major athletic talent, whose presence would enhance many a top-15 team. It is almost a given that he will have to come up with the kind of performance that would have NBA scouts drooling if Harvard is to have a chance in this game.
I haven’t even mentioned Vandy’s best player. That would be junior guard John Jenkins, who only happens to be the SEC’s leading scorer in conference games (19.9), in large measure because he is a 45 percent 3-point shooter. Defensing him borders on the impossible because his mates are very skilled at getting him open and because he may have the quickest release in all of college basketball.
Still, Vandy did manage to lose 10 games. “There was a time we weren’t defending very well,’’ Stallings says. “There was a time when we weren’t taking very good care of the ball. There was a time we couldn’t rebound very well . . . Those things have gotten better, and thus we’ve become a better team.’’
Harvard has one important thing going for it. It beat ACC tournament champion, and chic Final Four favorite Florida State, fair and square. So Vandy isn’t going to scare the Crimson.
“It was huge,’’ maintains senior guard Oliver McNally. “You can come into the season saying we can play with anybody and win games, but when you see that power conference and someone who is predicted to finish at the top, and did finish at the top of the ACC, and you beat them on a neutral court [with] no advantage is really given to either team, it’s a big confidence boost . . . we walk into every game thinking and believing we can win. It’s one thing to say that, but I think as a unit we do believe that.’’
Lest anyone forget, there is a bit of historical karma for Amaker’s lads to channel. Once upon a time, a Harvard team became the first in NCAA bracketed history to take down a 16 when the Crimson ladies knocked off Stanford. Perhaps Amaker should consider importing Allison Feaster (35 points, 13 rebounds in that upset) for a little pregame pep talk.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com.